For law firms and in house counsel alike, information technology (IT) is perhaps the single biggest and most disruptive factor that will dominate the agenda over the next five to 10 years. Of all the forces for change converging on the industry, it may also be the one for which leaders are least well prepared. Legal training, business acumen and experience are simply not enough when it comes to deciding how best to use IT to counter competitor actions, respond to ever more sophisticated customer demands and innovate to gain some form of commercial advantage.
Clearly not every lawyer has been cast adrift in an ocean of baffling acronyms, with vendors promising their solution as the holy grail. Many have worked effectively with their IT partners to embrace emerging technology, and the role of IT is already changing rapidly for some in-house legal departments and law firms. For example, IT-enabled innovation is providing tools to interrogate the characteristics and outcomes of past insurance disputes and predict the likelihood of legal success for current claims. In parallel, clients have a better understanding of the cost efficiencies IT can deliver, are increasingly auditing law firm IT systems and starting to assess the IT capabilities and proficiency of lawyers assigned to their account. Technology is enabling different strategies, new business models, collaborative working arrangements, establishment of virtual law firms and innovative service delivery models.
However, the pace of change is only likely to accelerate, and is creating a clear imperative for law firms leaders to invest time and effort to truly understanding the potential IT offers to drive efficiency, service, innovation and market disruption. Coupled with this is the need to explore the implications for business strategies, charging approaches, rewards, financial models, working practices, training and governance. Weak signals are already evident of a new tech-savvy order emerging in the legal industry, and the challenge is to adapt and keep pace with or ahead of the curve rather than continuously being on the receiving end of trends with ever-shortening windows in which to respond.
So what are the key technologies and technology-enabled developments that law firms and in-house legal departments should be preparing for? To explore and address these questions, the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) in 2013 launched a 10-month Legal Technology Future Horizons global research initiative. The study explored potential legal industry impacts of new and emerging technologies, and examined the resulting strategic priorities over the next 10 to 15 years. The study is designed to challenge current thinking, and provide insights and practical ideas to inform the development of future business and IT strategies for law firms, law departments and legal technology vendors. The final report outlines:
Collectively, these forces are driving the need to rethink the strategies, business models, structures and operations of in-house departments and law firms. There is a growing recognition that technology will play an increasingly central role in the emerging legal environment, streamlining legal processes, enhancing client-supplier relationships, and creating future sources of commercial benefit as both a value-chain enabler and value creator, with a focus on data-driven insight. Technology facilitates the move towards greater online service delivery and enables new structures with different business models for providers and in-house units. Indeed the boundaries between in-house and external service firms may start to erode, with lawyers moving between them fluidly. However, the biggest challenge and opportunity may come from the increasingly rapid emergence of smart or artificially intelligent devices and applications that effectively blur the distinction between human and machine capabilities and intelligence.
For example, potentially transformative IT developments on the horizon include automated capture, storage and interpretation of everything we see, hear and say during the day. Legal routines could be impacted by adoption of an array of intelligent 'virtual assistants' to support in-house counsel and external lawyers across literally every task. End users will carry a variety of wearable technologies enhanced with augmented reality (AR) and holographic displays that provide context specific assistance such as automatic language translation and voice-stress analysis. We could also witness widespread adoption of artificial intelligence across the legal spectrum from contract drafting to the courtroom process.
Our physical environments, everyday objects and clothing will become increasingly smart— with built-in sensors providing and acting on a continuous flow of information. The internet will display greater intelligence in interpreting our search requirements and offer a more immersive multi-sensory experience. Customer service delivery could be enhanced through deep collaboration environments, intelligent portals providing tracking dashboards and total transparency on the status of individual matters, shared databases, advanced videoconferencing, touchable holographs, novel data handling tools and sophisticated security technology.
Some —indeed maybe even the majority—may feel that the appropriate response is to wait and 'believe and act on it when I see it'. However, as with every industry, some will recognize the value of investing the time ahead of their competitors. Acting early gives us the breathing space to understand the potential of these emerging developments and buys us time to experiment with alternative technology, business and financial strategies and solutions.